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Jody Williams on landmines and killer robots

Octavian Report: How did you originally become involved with the campaign against landmines? Why did you think it was an important issue? 

Jody Williams: The reality is that I didn’t think about landmines. My first foray into protesting U.S. foreign policy was the war in Vietnam. It shattered all of my youthful beliefs in the mythologies put forth by this country. Vietnam really changed my perception of the U.S. particularly in its interactions with other countries. It was also, of course, the time of the Civil Rights movement and the reemergence of the women’s movement. That was when I was in university, from ’68 to ’72.

A decade later I was teaching at Antioch Law School in D.C. — teaching remedial English to farm workers. One day, I was coming to the Metro in D.C., on my way to Virginia, and this dude handed me a brochure. I looked at it, and it said: El Salvador, Another Vietnam? With a question mark. Had it not said Vietnam, I would have thrown it away, but I couldn’t quite imagine the relationship of Vietnam and El Salvador.

I opened it; it invited the reader to come to a church basement meeting in a week’s time and hear a speaker from El Salvador talk about what was being done in our name, and with our tax dollars, to prop up military control of the country of El Salvador. The thing that most amazes me about all of my work is the fact that a week after getting that creepy little brochure, I actually went to the meeting. I was expecting there to be 12 hippie types in folding chairs, which is exactly what it was. But I was absolutely transfixed by the speaker, whose father had been a killer Army colonel. He joined the democratic opposition. At the end of the meeting they passed around a sign-up sheet to volunteer to educate in some way U.S. citizens about what was happening in Salvador, and I signed up. That was February of 1981. My last trip to Salvador was in May of 1992.

After that I actually looked for a straight job. I was saved from that when I got a phone call from a man I knew from working in Central America. His name was Thomas Gebauer, and he was the head of a German medical humanitarian relief organization called Medico International. He tricked me into taking him to the office of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in D.C. He had a meeting with Bobby Muller. Bobby was the executive director.

When I got to the office, they were yammering on about landmines and their new project in Cambodia, where they were teaching former combatant amputees how to build prosthetics. I had brought a book, because I didn’t see what the hell I was doing there other than waiting for Thomas to be done. I was reading, and they kept talking at me, and I kept thinking, “Why are they bugging me? I’m not involved in their prosthetics project.” Suddenly Muller starts bouncing in his wheelchair with great enthusiasm and screaming that the only solution is the ban of landmines. They both looked at me and said, “Jody, we think you are the perfect person to try to bring together NGO’s in a civil society/political coalition to try to pressure governments and military to give up anti-personnel landmines.”

That’s how I got introduced to landmines. That’s how I was introduced to the idea of the campaign. Muller very quickly helped me understand that landmines are different because they stay in the ground, or in the rice paddy, or on the river bank for generations after the end of a conflict, and everybody who is maimed or killed by them at that point pretty much are civilians. I thought it was fascinating. It would take me out of Central America. I would have to learn new things. I’d have to think more seriously about the laws of war and their application to weapons. I would get to meet organizations working around the world. So I agreed. That’s how it started. Two NGO’s, one in Germany, one in the U.S., and one staff member, me. But I could call it the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. That’s how it’s started.

OR: Can you talk about the Ottawa Treaty?

Williams: I think we’re up to 163 nations that are part of the mine ban treaty. Because of the global stigmatization of the weapon, China, I think it was way back in ’95, stopped production of landmines for export in recognition of their humanitarian harm. Under Obama, the country was moving to give up all land mines except those in the DMZ, which we always argued against. The mines in the DMZ are actually Korean mines, runs the U.S. line — they are not U.S. mines. It was a specious argument, and was even more specious because nobody in their right mind would ever believe that an anti-personnel landmine, or a landmine field, would stop an invading force from North Korea.

The real reason we always believed, and I still believe, and the campaign still believes, that the U.S. was so irate about the landmine campaign is that they feared that if there was a ban treaty, it would begin a slippery slope where other weapons which might be useful to the U.S. military would be put at risk. That was actually said in a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, from the great state of Vermont, by then-Secretary of the Army General Gordon Sullivan: that it was a slippery slope. They didn’t really care about the landmines, they cared about the fact that civilians thought they had the right to speak up and try to help shape our world. I believe that citizens have not just the right to do it. We have a responsibility.

OR: What is the current status of landmines in the world? How big of an issue is it still, and where?

Williams: The countries who signed the treaty have pretty much been spot-on in stopping trade production, use, and in destroying their stockpiles. I think it was up to 80 million land mines that had been destroyed in stockpile. I think it is a couple dozen countries that have completed mine clearance, which is an obligation under the treaty. It wasn’t enough to just stop producing them and selling them and destroy your stockpile. Seriously contaminated countries are obliged under the treaty to de-mine. One of the biggest examples often used as a classic case of a country taking it seriously is Mozambique, which has completed mine clearance. I would say the countries that are still a mess, more or less, are countries like Cambodia, Angola, and Afghanistan, where they were just used in the millions.

OR: What came together that made this campaign so successful, given its small initial size?

Williams: Landmines affected many aspects of life, right? Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights had just released the standard brilliant work on the impact of landmines — Landmines in Cambodia: The Coward’s War. I started going to organizations that in some way or another either are connected to landmines or should be if they thought about it. The first meetings we had were with Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights. Then I started thinking: “Okay, are there non-governmental organizations that do mine clearance?” There was MAG, the Mine Advisory Group. They were former British soldiers who started working in de-mining in Afghanistan and then went and created MAG. I started talking to them. I started talking to an organization called Handicap International, based out of France, that was working with amputees and prosthetic limbs.

I started really fully in May of ’92 with the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe because we knew the political culture. Then, very quickly, we started moving into Cambodia, Central America, Nicaragua, because we wanted the countries most affected by landmines involved. I was the coordinator  — that was my title. I really viewed my role as coordinating the information and actions of the other NGOs that were part of the campaign. I did not see myself as some important executive director telling people what to do. Information is power. Some people in my position would have controlled the information to enhance their own power. I made sure that everybody had the same basic information and coordinated the activities.

About every six months, we would get together and do a strategy review. My job then was to make sure that everybody who committed to participating in an action did (and calling them out if they didn’t). I used the then-very sexy technology of the fax machine. With thermal paper. I would get up at about 4:30 in the morning and as the campaign grew, I would fax the leadership in each country, the latest developments, updates, thoughts on actions. I would spend a couple of hours faxing in the morning. To me, it was practical. I did not have the human power to stuff envelopes and stamp and mail them. Who would know if mail ever arrived in Cambodia, Angola, or Mozambique? If you have a fax machine and you get a fax, the implication is that it’s something important and you have to pay attention to it. It also gave me the power, so to speak, of having a paper trail. I did not talk on the phone, hardly ever.

I did not like governments, particularly after my experiences in Central America. We obviously recognized that we could push for a treaty but we could not negotiate it. Governments have to do it. We started, right from the start, meeting with governments and beginning to talk to them about banning anti-personnel landmines. I went to New York City. We didn’t have much money, and you could go to the U.N., and that would be where you’d be able to meet governments relatively easily. There was a long process of building a core group of governments that believed as strongly as we did that landmines should be banned. Individual governments started taking steps that were the building blocks to a treaty. Belgium in March of 1995 was the first nation in the world to pass national legislation banning the use, production trade, and stockpiling of landmines. Other Western countries were freaked out that Belgium dared to be first, and so there was a mad rush and competition to follow suit.

In 1996, Canada stepped forward and announced it would be hosting a meeting in Ottawa that year to bring together supposedly truly pro-ban nations to map out a timeline of how to move forward to ban the weapon.

We were there. It was exciting, and scary, and I don’t know what we would have done if Canada had not done that. I’m sure we would have figured something out, but Canada had actually moved from being a U.S. surrogate on the issue to taking a leadership role. We go to the conference, it’s three days, it’s in Ottawa. I think there were about 50 nations, and they had to sign a statement that they were working toward a ban of anti-personnel landmines.

The night before the conference ended, we got a call from some aides of Lloyd Axworthy, who at that point was the Foreign Minister of Canada. They said, “We need to tell you that tomorrow, after Lloyd speaks to the group and thanks them, he’s going to challenge them to negotiate a mine ban treaty within one year, and Canada will sign it, even if there’s only one other nation.” It was truly monumental.

Canada spent a hell of a lot of political capital in a period between that October meeting and a three-day meeting in Bonn in, I think it was January of 1997. The treaty was not negotiated in the UN, it was negotiated in a standalone series of meetings in Bonn and Brussels. The last session was three weeks in Norway. The treaty was successfully concluded in September of 1997. Three weeks later, it was announced that the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and its coordinator — me — were sharing the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. My parents were in heaven. Neither of my parents finished high school, so you can imagine what it was like for them. Being at the ceremony with them was just outstanding.

OR: Did grassroots education work the most effectively during the campaign? Did educating political leadership?

Williams: It was both. Meaning we had strong campaigns in many countries. You can talk with diplomats in the U.N., and they write reports, but if there are not people back in the capital pressuring the government to pay attention, it just goes into a stack of reports. We had huge campaigns in France, in Cambodia, in Mozambique, Canada, the U.S. Those campaigners were always pushing.

We had a woman from Hungary. Dalma was her name. She could write a five-word slogan that captured the critical element of a discussion in the negotiations on a particular day. She’d make little slips of paper with the slogan. As the delegates were coming to go into the room, we would give them the slogans. Some of them tried to avoid us, because they were sick of us making them think. At one point, I was so angry at them, I said, “I wish I could pick up this conference room” — this was when we were still in the U.N. — “and put it in the middle of the biggest minefield in Cambodia, and not let you out until you do a mine ban treaty. Then you will understand why people living in minefields care about this issue. You think if you study the existing protocol and change a comma to a semicolon, you’ve done a hell of a lot of work in a day.”

Campaigners built a fake but realistic minefield, and they put it in front of the conference room doors, and diplomats had to walk over the minefield. That was put in front of the door. Diplomats would have to go across it to get into the room, except for the ones that were chicken and found side entrances, and didn’t even have the courage to walk across it. In the U.N., we were able to get a clock set up that counted the number of new victims of landmines. At that point, we were saying that once every 20 minute, somewhere in the world, somebody is either maimed or killed. The clock would be keeping count as the diplomats were doing nothing. Every 20 minutes there would be an explosion sound, the sound of the landmine somewhere in the world maiming or killing.

OR: Can you talk about what you are working on now?

Williams: Yes. Killer robots.

The use of drones in declared war is legal, although people have a lot of issues with it. But if you’re out just whacking people because you don’t like them in undeclared war zones, it’s a crime, it’s murder, it’s extrajudicial execution. It made me agitated. I started doing the research for a piece, and in so doing, I came upon something that should have been obvious and logical, but wasn’t to me: the fact that drones were considered the Model T of what would come with fully autonomous weapon systems in the future. It totally freaked me out. I grew up in the duck-and-cover generation in Green Street Grade School. We used to have to crawl under our desks and practice how we would survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb.

I was terrified of nuclear war. I remember Kennedy on the television during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My family, when we were young, was on the ragged edges of the middle class. We didn’t have money, and I wished my family had money, not because I wanted a cute sweater-skirt set but because I wanted us to have a bomb shelter.

When I found out about the move towards fully autonomous weapon systems, I said, “We have to start a campaign. This is beyond the pale. Human beings think it’s okay to create weapon systems that on their own can target and kill humans with no human being involved in the target-and-kill decisions.”

I just thought it was crossing a moral and ethical Rubicon that should not be crossed.

We launched the campaign in front of the Parliament in London in April of 2013, with a robot. It was a friendly robot. He was carrying a tray with brochures about the campaign to stop killer robots. He spoke. He said, “I’m a friendly robot, please don’t weaponize me.” As you can imagine, in front of Parliament, there’s tons of people walking around, and everybody wanted to come over and meet the robot. That was how we launched, and it’s been a very similar process to landmines. Growing the NGO community that is involved, pressuring the U.N. To be honest, governments were so freaked out when we launched the campaign. By that, I mean the United States.

The majority of nations want to see a treaty somehow prohibiting the weapons, but it’s still going nowhere. It’s not that we are Luddites, it’s not that we don’t think there are appropriate uses for robotic systems in the military. We do not think that target-and-kill decisions should be made by algorithms programmed into a weapon.

There’s also hacking to consider: the Pentagon itself has been hacked. There’s also spoofing. We have a lot of roboticists that are part of the campaign. Many of them are feeling like they do not want to be the nuclear physicist who tarnished the reputation of nuclear physics by contributing to the atomic bomb. Thousands have signed letters calling for a ban on killer robots. We’re making a lot of progress, but as you can imagine, the money involved in landmines was chump change. The billions involved in robotic systems are not chump change.

OR: You were one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Do you think there’s been progress, or are we moving backwards on the issues that the group works on?

Williams: In the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901, there had been 17 women. The entire purpose of the Nobel Women’s Initiative is to use the influence and access that we have as Nobel Peace laureates to shine a spotlight, if you will, on the work of women around the world — grassroots women’s activists working for sustainable peace, justice, and equality. Primarily in conflict zones. We do a lot of work in the DRC with women are who struggling against rape as a weapon of war, which is of course what Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad received the Prize for.

It’s a hell of a group, and I love it. I would point out that there has never been a Nobel Men’s Initiative of any type. It is pretty amazing. I just think it’s indicative that women approach things differently.

I believe that right now Mr. Trump and his minions are trying to completely undermine the #MeToo movement, obviously. With every movement forward, there is a movement backward. A lot of women, of course, took the Kavanagh thing really hard. It’s just so very much what everybody who has been sexually assaulted knows. Your perpetrator is not the one who is questioned — it’s you. Were you drinking? Did you have on a short skirt? Were you being provocative? My response is, if I want to drink, it’s none of your freaking business. What I should I do? Wear a burka?

I’m a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. I do not live in Houston. Never would. I fly down to team teach in the fall semester. I go three times, and we do two five-hour classes each time I go.

We were talking in the class about Kavanagh, and #MeToo, and sexual harassment and assault. One of the young women in the class started shaking and had to leave the room. The woman I teach with went out, and she couldn’t come back in or even begin to talk about it.

Does this mean there’s no progress? Well, it may feel like it at the moment, of course, but if there had never been progress, we’d still have slaves here. Women would still be asking for the right to step out of the kitchen and not be pregnant. Yet for many, many women it feels like, “What the hell do we have to do to stop this? Why don’t men who really believe that they have no right to sexually harass or assault a woman stand up with the women?”

It’s not enough that men just say, “Oh, I’d never do that.” So what? If you don’t stand with the women and show people that you really are determined to change it, it’s not particularly helpful. Mostly, men are quiet and don’t know what to say when one poses that. They feel like everybody’s looking at them like they’re a rapist. That is not the point. The point is: if you’re not a rapist, get off up your butt and take some action to help change the world. People are terrified by the word “activism.” All it means is to act. It means to care enough about some issue, to get up and act to make the world better. It’s not difficult, it’s not magic. Anybody can do it. You just get up. It’s that easy.